The Remarkable Voice of Judy Collins, Master of the Modern Art Song
By Professor Nathan Bernstein
It is a pleasure to introduce today’s guest writer, Professor Nathan Bernstein. Many readers, who follow great singers and historical operatic recordings on Youtube, will certainly know our author, although not by his real name. Many will have read the erudite and highly detailed comments of Professor Bernstein, whose Youtube pseudonym is ‘Meltzerboy,” and who signs himself as “Nate.” In fact, Professor Bernstein possesses a truly formidable knowledge of old classical singers and equally antique recordings. He and I have conversed often and over a long period of time on Youtube, and I confess that I have learned a lot in so doing! We both share a particular love of two singers: Amelita Galli-Curci, and—strange as it may at first seem—Judy Collins. I believe it dawned on both of us at about the same that “folk singer” is simply an inadequate term to describe the amazing Judy Collins. She is so much more than that—her music is both intellectual and sophisticated, and often easily on a par with the music of Schumann and Schubert. She is in fact a master of the modern art song, and her presentations are superlative. She possesses an extraordinary voice and certainly belongs in the company of the singers one finds on Great Opera Singers! Edmund StAustell
Those who experienced the era of social protest and revolution in the 1960's are no doubt familiar with the voice and singing of Judy Collins, one of the pioneer folk divas of that turbulent period in American history. Folk music, at least as it manifested itself in the United States, was inextricably linked to liberal and leftist causes, although, as Judy Collins' famous contemporary, Joan Baez, once stated, half her songs are a call to activism while the other half serve as a means of escape from the social and political injustices of the times.
For myself, the first time I heard the voice of Judy Collins in performance was in the 1970's at an outdoor venue: to be exact, Manhattan's Central Park. I clearly remember eagerly waiting in line clutching my ticket, wondering how she would sound live as compared to her voice on records. With many singers, one's first live contact is slightly disappointing since, as most of you may know, modern recordings are the product of several takes, splicing, and many other technological marvels, all of which are designed to package an artist at her absolute best. Therefore, I had my doubts. But all at once I and others waiting on line were treated to the sound of Judy's voice as she was rehearsing a few lines of Leonard Cohen's song "Story of Isaac." My immediate thought was that her voice sounded stronger, fuller, and more beautiful than it had on recordings, and the ensuing concert only confirmed my initial impression.
How best to describe the voice and singing style of Judy Collins? With respect to the voice itself, one might say it is nearly vibrato-less, silvery, and equalized in all its registers. There is no forcing of tone yet it can at all times be easily and clearly heard without any interfering fuzz. Further, the diction is impeccable and the singing is artistic in that it avoids cheap effects and reveals the musicality as well as musicianship of the singer. Here is one of her most popular and best-loved songs, “Both Sides Now:”
Sophisticated lyrics and stunning vocalism! A truly beautiful song, magisterially delivered!
Judy Collins had originally studied classical piano (similar to opera singers such as Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons) and indeed gave performances of Mozart and Rachmaninoff compositions in public when she was still in her teens. Her piano teacher was one of the first women conductors, Dr. Antonia Brico, about whom Judy later produced an award-nominated documentary. Moreover, Judy grew up in a musical household: her mother played the piano, while her blind father, Chuck Collins, was a well-known radio personality and performer who specialized in the songs of Rodgers and Hart. So how did Judy Collins gravitate from performing the classical piano compositions of Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff, as well as Broadway tunes, to singing folk music? There were probably several forces at work, but, according to her own testimony, when she first heard Jo Stafford singing "Barbara Allen" on the radio, she was instantly hooked. At the start, Judy Collins was a folksinger pure and simple, performing traditional Irish, Scottish, and English ballads as well as the music of "city" songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and several others. She was instrumental in popularizing the songs of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, in particular, before either of them had record contracts or performed their own compositions on stage. Indeed, she was responsible for Leonard Cohen's career as a performer. In the late 1960's, she was led to her one and only voice teacher, Max Margulies, to whom she admits to owing her vocal prowess and longevity. It was Margulies who shaped her voice from one of a rough (but still beautiful) alto to that of a shimmering soprano with a nearly three-octave range. She worked tirelessly with Margulies on equalizing her registers from top to bottom, on that elusive element of all great singers called phrasing, and on what Margulies spoke of as "clarity." It was the same method he instilled in the classical singers he taught and coached. Here is an absolute classic of phrasing and style, as well as brilliant musicality. Written by Collins herself, the astonishing “My Father:”
From that point on, Judy evolved into a chanteuse and song stylist, who would sing not only traditional folk music but Broadway show tunes, art songs of composers such as Ned Rorem, popular music, and songs that can legitimately be called art songs. My next selection is a personal favorite from Judy's earlier years as a balladeer, which she has been reintroducing in several of her concerts of late. In the heart-breaking “Hills of Shiloh" one can hear the deeper alto quality of Judy's voice at the time:
Apart from her professional acclaim as an accomplished singer and performer, Judy Collins has had more than her share of personal misfortune, including being stricken with polio as a child, a bout of tuberculosis in her twenties, bulimia, clinical depression, alcoholism for more than 20 years, divorce from her first husband, and the suicide of her son, her only child, at the age of 33. Through it all, however, she has managed to persevere with grace and dignity due, in large measure, to the healing power of her singing, performing, and writing in her journal. She has also become a spokesperson for suicide survivors and those who suffer from the disease of alcoholism.
Finally, a piece composed by Judy Collins called "Home Before Dark."